House congressional pages are not so young as to be foolish, not too old to be servile, but just the right age, witnesses told a special investigatory commission yesterday.
A senator and two congressmen, all former pages, agreed with page supervisors that pages 16 to 18 years old are "optimal" and "just opening up to the experience" of working on Capitol Hill, as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) put it.
"There's nothing really wrong with the page system. Just modest corrections are required," he said.
Dingell, who was a page 40 years ago, reflected the views of all but one of the nine witnesses in the first day of hearings before a special commission on the pages appointed by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.).
O'Neill asked the commission to consider whether the page system should be retained, and if so, whether and how it might be modified in the wake of allegations of illicit sex and drug activities involving pages, congressional staffers and members of Congress.
The allegations also are being investigated by the Justice Department and the House ethics committee.
"We will seriously consider whether or not to abolish the system," said Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), chairman of the special commission, as the session opened. "It is a serious possibility."
After the hearing, he said he was concerned because no one had offered what he considered major criticism of the operation. "There is general acknowledgement of the need for this service," he said. "The question is just who will perform it."
The 71 House pages now must be between 16 and 18, but the Senate's 31 pages may be as young as 14, which all witnesses agreed is too young for what Dingell called a "brutal" workload and the social temptations of Washington.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a former page, recommended college student pages, saying that "fundamental change may be the best way."
But Donald Anderson, manager of the Democratic Cloakroom, said much page duty involves "tasks that older people might find a bit too servile to want to do." These include fetching cigarettes, carrying flags around and making coffee, he said.
Former representative Charles Wiggins (R-Cal.), a citizen member of the special commission, said a page should refuse to fetch cigarettes, but Anderson replied, "He'd be the last page that did."
Several witnesses recommended additional supervision of the pages, perhaps in a common dormitory-school-dining-recreation complex. Deputy doorkeeper Jack Russ said pages now pay about $480,000 to rent "glorified closets" in Capitol Hill rooming houses and that proposals exist for a $10 million page center.
"But there's no way you're going to stop a derelict kid like we had up here from doing what he did," Russ said. "If you ran it the center like Lorton Reformatory you couldn't stop him." Russ denied afterward that he had any particular page in mind.